A normative extension of standard economic theory is that an individual is the best judge of what is good for himself. At least there’s no way to determine who else would be a better judge, and especially who should have the right to impose their own preferences by force. The choice of a consumer, producer (including the worker) or participant in any voluntary social interaction is therefore worthy of legal protection if not respect. Not so long ago, virtually any mainstream or Austrian economist would have agreed with this normative presumption.
The children were the only difficult exception. The presumption only applied to adults. It is true that black people or women (as well as proletarians with false consciousness in Marxist theory) were often seen as exceptions as well, but economists have generally rejected this type of philosophical discrimination between human adults. The label “gloomy science” has apparently been stuck on economics for this kind of reason. (See my post”Is it okay to use the R-word?”) Moreover, in the classical-liberal tradition, it goes without saying that no one should have the power to decide at what age a specific individual becomes an adult. Thus, the rule of law has established a standard age, usually 21, and more recently 18.
In our countries (Western or Westernized) there are many things a child cannot do freely with their body, including accepting certain types of jobs under certain conditions, opting out of any form of school, s escaping from his home, possessing weapons and explosives, and so on. In many countries, it is forbidden for a child (and even a young legal adult!) to buy cigarettes and alcohol. His parents must approve, at least implicitly, most of what he does. Sometimes even parental permission is not enough.
The scandal of children allowed, with the complicity if not the incitement of the state, to undergo sexual mutilation is a relatively new phenomenon (see my article “Mrs. Grundy versus Ryan Anderson’s book”). The clitoridectomy or the infibulation of girls were rightly considered as liberticidal and barbaric practices. If we follow the standard normative economic interpretation of individual choice, of course, an adult should not be prohibited from modifying their own body. Written by John Stuart Mill, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Children are another matter until they are old enough to make their own choices.
Seen from this angle, the so-called “Let Them Grow Act” which has just been adopted by the Nebraska legislature appears rather moderate, if not too moderate (see Articles 14 to 20 of Bill LB574). It prohibits sexual mutilation on non-adults by surgery (altering or removing sexual attributes or traits), while allowing some latitude for chemical puberty blockers and hormone therapy (which can have irreversible consequences ).
An opponent of the bill, State Senator George Dungan, a Democrat, declared:
We shouldn’t be there to tell people what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
Indeed, those who oppose such a light ban on child mutilation seem to be part of the same crowd who wholeheartedly approve of most restrictions on adults concerning the use of their own body, from the right to wear instruments of self-defense to the freedom to work for less than the minimum wage which excludes them from employment, to use their hands or their voice to express ideas old-fashioned, to put or not to put certain substances in their own bodies, and to generally engage in “capitalist acts between consenting adults” (to quote Robert Nozick).
As Miranda said in Shakespeare Storm“O brave new world, which has such people in it!”